HOME OF MERCY #
This is an early poem illustrating an angry bitter Gwen Harwood. An uncompromisingly hard edged indictment of how we treat the disadvantaged. No holds barred – no punches pulled. A complete negation of Christian charity; love and dutiful care.
This poem is about a Catholic convent in Toowong, Queensland.
Home of Mercy #
By two and two the ruined girls are walking
at the neat margin of the convent grass
into the chapel, counted as they pass
by an old nun who silences their talking.
They smooth with roughened hands the clumsy dress
that hides their ripening bodies. Memories burn
like incense as towards plaster saints they turn
faces of mischievous children in distress
They kneel: time for the spirit to begin
with prayer its sad recourse to dream and flight
from their intolerable weekday rigour
Each morning they will launder, for their sin
sheets soiled by other bodies, and at night
angels will wrestle them with brutish vigour.
Australia had many institurions for housing the disadvantaged. Initailly called The Female factory in 1821, it became The Parramatta Girls’ Home, The Girls’ Home was also known as Parramatta Girls’ Industrial School, Girls’ Training School, and Girls’ Training Home. Each name was very much a euphemism. Whatever you call it, it was a high-security institution. That is, a jail.
It was a place where adolescent girls who had been removed from abusive or unfit parents, found homeless, orphaned, or mandated by the courts as wards of the state could be indefinitely detained. It was among the most infamous examples of what criminologists today call “penal welfare” – the practice of locking up children and adolescents who have committed no offence other than being poor, homeless, or simply unloved.
Ann-Marie Priest, delving into Harwood’s most intimate writings discovers a subversive religious, yet sexual woman who, like John Donne, fuses the carnal with divine love.
At 17 years, Harwood has a joyous sexual relationship with her fifty year old music teacher and then fell in love with a young curate, Peter Bennie, who occupied all her “thought, affection, hope and longing” for five years.
As a consequence of her passion for Bennie, she joined the Anglican Church. When he is transferred to Darwin, thinking she might have a vocation to religious life, she enters a tiny Catholic convent in Toowong for six months. It is highly likely this poem stems from that time.
Yet somehow she remained entirely unburdened by Christian concepts of female sexual purity. Much as she loved the church, revelling in its sensual delights – the vestments and candlelight, the ravishing music, the passionate poetry of the Psalms and the Song of Songs – she seems to have simply dismissed its moral teachings on sex. She put no spiritual value on virginity, and saw no evil in practices the Church condemned as fornication and adultery. To her, sex was always good – even holy. Ann-Marie Priest
The irony of the title becomes glaringly obvious. The anonymous girls are described as “ruined”, how is not made clear. The regimentation is evident by them walking two by two, perhaps, better to be counted, beside the neat grass under the severe judgments of old nuns.
Appearance of order. The symbolism is sterile and oppressive; even the saints are represented through a cold plaster. There is no aura of warmth, love or mercy, a total perversion of Christian doctrine and the love and compassion taught by Jesus.
The tightly controlled sonnet form echoes the restrictive and oppression of the strict rules of the convent competing with natural youth of innocence and innate desires. The public prayers provide some respite where these mischievous children in distress can escape into their dreams and fantasies.
The laundering of their and others sins is symbolised by the cycles of the machines, while at night on the girls on their own continue their wrestling with their demons between their souls and carnal desires. These are the fallen women, that society has failed.
Their roughened hands, due to drudgery, and their daggy dress contrast with the hope of their potentially “ripening bodies”.
Another sterile image “plaster saints” is juxtaposed with their mischievous faces, further subverted by outward kneeling but indulging in dreams and fantasies instead of devout prayers.
Their menial tasks is introduced by pejoratives like “intolerable, rigour and soiled sheets”. Whose sheets, is not evident.
The last line sums up the struggle between the angelic, and the brutish. The vigour of their fantasies , rhyming with the rigour of their daily chores.
The strict form of a variated sonnet with its tight rhyme echoes the strictures they endure. The quatrains open and close with a finality due to the demands of the rhymes.
The rhyme scheme is regular in the first two stanzas - abba, but repeated in the last two stanzas as abc and abc.
Instead of an Octave and a sestet, Harwood has two quatrains followed by two tercets.
Australia has an unenviable reputation as a harsh continent physically and socially. Early convicts led a cruel brutal existence. While the men were treated bloody lashes, women and children often ended up in cruel heartless institutions like female factories. Indigenous children were treated even more callously.
The film Philomena, set in Ireland portrays much the same harsh love.
A young Irish mother, is searching for her son, born out of wedlock, committed to a convent and sold to the highest bidder, an American couple. When she attempts to find him, the Church not only fails to help her, but also fails the son, attempting a reunion with the mother.
The Sisters claim their vow of chastity is enough to get them to heaven and young unmarried girls who have sexual pleasure and produce illegitimate children, should suffer in penance. A complete negation of Christian love and charity.
Filomena is a form of the Greek female given name Philomena. It means “friend of strength” (φιλος (philos) “friend, lover” and μενος (menos) “mind, purpose, strength, courage”) or “loved one”.
(Philomel - an Athenian princess in Greek mythology raped and deprived of her tongue by her brother-in-law Tereus, avenged by the killing of his son, and changed into a nightingale while fleeing from him.)